This week marked the 21st anniversary of Kurt Cobain’s suicide, and a new movie serves as a reminder of just how unresolved the Nirvana frontman’s public image was when he died. Montage of Heck, the latest but by far most comprehensive film about Cobain, arrives at the TriBeCa Film Festival in the coming weeks and through an extremely intimate portrayal of Cobain (wherein we find out maybe more than we ever wanted to know about the man), we are given unprecedented access to his life, something he again and again tried to prevent.
But while many critics have faulted the documentary for getting too close (though, really, since when have documentarians respected the desire to keep certain things private?), filmmaker Brett Morgen’s decision to implicate the audience is an integral part of Cobain’s story.
The extensive interviews of Cobain’s family, his wife, his ex, and one band mate, (as Noisey pointed out, the vast majority of people interviewed, and those who have the most to say are the women in Cobain’s life, a point of view that was generally silenced by a media suspicious of Courtney Love and partial to a male rock ‘n’ roll perspective) along with the reconstruction of Cobain’s own narrative based on his diaries and autobiographical recordings, amount to an inquiry, maybe even a trial of sorts.
Morgen is investigating the people who surrounded his subject and asking who might be held responsible for Cobain’s psychological suffering and ultimately his suicide. Another suspect, so to speak, is the audience. As close watchers of Cobain’s life, as people who don’t know him personally but have an intense or maybe even just passing interest in him, we are implicated at least partially in one major factor in his depression and existential crisis—fame.
That’s not to say Morgen is seeking to (or even successful at) establishing any clear blame, rather he’s taking Cobain’s suicide as a natural end point and working towards that throughout the film, building a case to try and make sense of what to many fans and idolizers appeared to be either a senseless act as much as it made for a logical conclusion. Everything “fit” about Cobain’s death: He was a rockstar (as much as the term probably disgusted him) who wrote songs about self-hatred, despair, and destruction at the height of his career who had slipped back into heroin addiction (or as we see, a celebration and romanticization of the junkie life) and was knee deep in a co-dependent relationship with another maniacally creative drug addict. Also, he was 27, that magic-tragic rock ‘n’ roll number, something the film makes clear at the very end of the film.
As the audience to Cobain’s life, we’ve never been as close to him as we are allowed by director Brett Morgen, having always been kept at more than arms-length by Cobain’s opacity ensured by his always sarcastic and exceedingly rebellious attitude toward a media that he understood to be hellbent on criticizing him. Like many of his punk predecessors, Cobain came up against a fundamental paradox of playing in a band whose values are the negation of mainstream culture when said band is co-opted by the mainstream. Rebellion doesn’t hold the same legitimacy when everyone’s doing it. As Montage of Heck would have us believe, Cobain’s success was a classic case of being careful what you wish for.
Another way to think about this is that at some point punks, unless they want to go completely off the grid, will always come up against a brick wall: They will have to sell out in one of two ways, by getting a regular job or selling their art to capitalists. Cobain agreed to do the latter, but went through with it kicking and screaming: he appeared on the April 1992 cover of Rolling Stone wearing a shirt with the words, “Corporate Magazines Still Suck.”
Thankfully Montage, as its name implies, is no ordinary narrative documentary; it incorporates news reels, Super 8 films from Cobain’s childhood, home movies, animation, and glimpses into Cobain’s notebooks and diaries. Like any really thoughtful biographical work, Montage confronts the tentative nature of memory. Throughout the film we are introduced to less than reliable narrators (Cobain’s own mother, Wendy O’Connor; wife, Courtney Love; and an earlier girlfriend, Tracy Marander) and pummeled with fantastical animation scenes (some backed by voice recordings of Cobain speaking about his miserable teenage years). Conflicting stories abound, and though we are fed some central truths, it’s up to the viewer to decide who were the enablers, the loyalists, and the Judases in Cobain’s life.
At the start of the film we see Super 8 footage of an energetic blonde toddler, unwrapping a miniature guitar for Christmas, disrupting a game of pin the tail on the donkey. And though an unfortunate tortured genius narrative sets the tone at the beginning when Cobain’s sister describes him as having “that genius brain,” this notion quickly unravels as you realize Cobain’s limitations. Though clearly an intelligent and creative person, he was emotionally and intellectually stunted.
“I hated everyone for they were so phony,”a recorded Cobain tells us over animation depicting a teenage Cobain. School was the equivalent of torture for him—he dropped out just weeks before graduating high school—and never really embraced the fundamentals, as evidenced in his tendency to misspell. We are woven in and out of pages and pages of band notes, angsty scribbles, diaries, and private notes Cobain probably never imagined might be seen by anyone other than himself. Parents, step parents, and relatives alike played a game of hot potato with a teenaged Cobain, all welcoming him into their home before quickly getting fed up with his wild ways and kicking him out. His stepmother looks into the camera and wonders what it must have felt like “to have your entire family reject you.”
We even find out, in a particularly heart-wrenching and stomach-churning scene, that Cobain’s girlfriend Tracy provided for him while he sat home on the couch all day after having given up on an odd-job operation. She insists, with a stilted smile, that she was simply being a good girlfriend and supporting his creative endeavors, but we’re left with the lingering image of a woman letting herself get walked all over by a bum. Tracy appears dumfounded when she is confronted with the notion that Cobain may have been experimenting with heroin at this time.
And though all of this sounds very sad, the doc communicates Cobain’s response to it all: rage—but not a testosterone-fueled kind of anger, rather a seething sense of injustice and phoniness. But Cobain’s imperfections are what make Montage of Heck worth seeing. Rather than weaving some Lizard King, poetic genius trip, Morgen feeds us the stuff straight. Some of it’s less than pretty: In high school Cobain and his friends took advantage of a mentally disabled girl in order to steal booze from her basement, and we seen an older Cobain nodding off on dope while he clutches his new baby.
Other scenes are remarkably intimate, and sweet: We see home video footage of Cobain and Love embracing one another, naked together in the bathroom shaving, chatting, and primping (well, as much as heroin addicts are wont to primp). It almost feels as if we’re in bed with them when they’re having sex, which is needless to say, a little weird. But then again, this is all part of Morgen’s inquiry, and as Cobain obsessives, this is what we want to see and ultimately this is the urge that drove Cobain up the wall. See: “Rape Me.”
But ultimately, Kurt wanted to be successful. He just didn’t necessarily know how to be successful once he’d arrived. Before Nevermind drops, a reporter asks Cobain, “Are you prepared to be the next big band?” He responds in proper punk fashion. “We’re prepared to destroy our careers if it happens.”
More so, success stank of everything he’d learned to hate growing up in a stifling suburban atmosphere before his parents got divorced and he learned that middle class bliss was a mirage. He maintained this teenage insolence well into his music career. This becomes clear when Kurt is in back in the studio with Nirvana recording In Utero, the followup to Nevermind. Steve Albini (of Big Black, a band Kurt idolized), now an established producer cries out in anger: “You can’t just do what you do on stage, you can’t, you’re making an album!”
Krist Novoselic, Nirvana’s bassist, is maybe the most striking contribution to the film. Decades on, he’s still incapable of speaking about Cobain without tearing up. The sense of guilt is palpable when we see Novoselic dressed like an aging liberal hippie sitting comfortably in what is clearly a very nice home. He talks about Kurt as a good friend, but someone with whom he still has unsettled scores.
The separation between the Novoselic of then (as seen in press footage from interviews and home videos) and the guy we see now is massive. Once just as sarcastic and angsty as Kurt, though never nearly as dark and sensitive, he’s now… an adult. And we start to see the reasons why Novoselic is sitting here speaking to us and Kurt is not—namely, heroin.
While Novoselic admits he dealt with what he described as the “traumatic” experience of suddenly becoming the It-band pretty much overnight by drinking, he says: “Kurt had heroin.” He berates himself for not picking up on the “warning signs,” which he says in hindsight were everywhere.
Heroin is a mysterious character in the film. While only a few times is it made abundantly clear that Kurt is high on the stuff (when he’s nodding off, when he can’t answer a journalist’s questions with much more than a muttered, unintelligible response), we never see Kurt actually use. There are no home videos of him shooting up, no track marks. There are, however, sores on his face. Perpetually skinny, he goes through periods of looking straight up gaunt. But it’s clear Kurt’s relationship with heroin was an intense one. He wasn’t only using to self-medicate for a mysterious stomach ailment. If we’re to believe Courtney Love–and honestly why shouldn’t we? after all she readily admits she used heroin while pregnant and her demonization by the media wreaks of misogyny–Kurt had a morbid desire to be a junkie. She recalls Cobain telling her: “I’m going to get to 3 million and I’m going to be a junkie.”
The home videos of a slightly pregnant Courtney Love and Kurt pretty much melting onto one another and frolicking around their big Seattle house show a side of heroin that isn’t normally a part of the addiction narrative–the fun part (as twisted as that sounds). Morgen emphasizes that, yes, heroin is pleasurable and not a drug that simply holds on to people by virtue of its potential for physically and psychologically painful withdrawal symptoms. People also enjoy using it. At this point Kurt had fully devoted himself to a heroin lifestyle–so much so that he called off 6 months of tour dates to stay at home with Courtney, shoot up, and paint.
But the party ends soon after Frances Bean is born. Kurt and Courtney were both apparently monitored by Child Protective Services and for a time, Kurt quit using heroin. Morgen makes a convincing argument this is something Kurt wanted to do, rather than something he was forced to do. We see Kurt obsessing over his child as any loving parent would; he admits that the thought of losing his baby “haunts” him every day. He becomes rabidly protective of his wife and his kid, to the point of threatening journalists. Cobain even suggests that if anything was going to make him give up the whole rock ‘n’ roll pursuit, it would be his daughter.
Two years after Nevermind, Nirvana is back in the studio and Kurt has emerged from his self-imposed exile. But then we remember how and why Kurt withdrew from making music in the first place: heroin. After battling intense depression exacerbated by withdrawal, he starts using again and this time slips deeper into isolation and depression before taking his own life in 1994.
We’re left feeling removed from Kurt’s final act, the only privacy Morgen allows. His suicide is described in darkness and there are no photos, no news reels, no footage of Courtney or anyone being interviewed after the fact. We’re left with the bare minimum of facts, and for a documentarian not to take the juicy bait, is clearly an intentional and hugely symbolic decision. Rather than be left with the dirty details of Cobain’s dramatic end, we’re left with all of the threads leading up to that point. It’s our job to wind them together in such a way that results in the conclusion, if we choose to take it that far.
Montage of Heck is screening at the 2015 TriBeCa Film Festival on Sunday, April 19th at Spring Studios and Thursday April 23rd at Regal Cinemas Battery Park.